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March 24, 2010
The Raven in Ravening
In an anguished polemic titled ‘Dream of a Fair Field’ published in The Furrow the fine Irish poet and editor John F. Deane wrote, ‘The ground of all my living and writing has been an attempt to fashion a language and imagery suitable to the translation of Christian faith in these modern times, and for this I have suffered ridicule and rejection … How can [a poem] bring a sense of integrity and morality to a political system in our own country that works by subterfuge, aiming at perpetuation of power rather than the good of the citizens when political life has become shameful and overtly dismissive of the deeper values by which Christianity ought to flourish. A poet may be noisily praised and lauded in public but is ignored and dismissed as having nothing ‘real’ to offer to the ‘real’ world. …’
I quote from this essay because the poet intends it to be read and considered: the piece is republished on Deane’s personal website. If we accept that these are legitimate assertions and questions for a poet of faith then Deane’s beleaguered response is perfectly understandable. However, the stance of his language gives the impression that Christian faith is already cornered - cornered by the ‘‘real’ world’, even though Deane is sharing that corner with his God. Poetry gets him (and his faith) out of this corner. Poetry serves his cause (and his God) clearly and beautifully. The poems in A Little Book of Hours release little worlds; Deane’s perplexity becomes articulate energy and the means for clear-eyed self-exploration—exploring if not quite never answering those questions in his essay. Here is an indicative quotation from the poem ‘Towards a Conversion’. In Deane’s poems an ecological sense of conversion, of ‘translation’, is always tangible within his spiritual perceptions:
… I walk over millennia, the Irish
wolf and bear, the elk and other
miracles; everywhere bog-oak roots
and ling, forever in their gentle
torsion, with all this floor a living thing, held
in the world’s care, indifferent. Over everything
voraciously, the crow, a monkish body hooded
in grey, crawks its blacksod, cleansing music;
lay your flesh down here you will become
carrion-compost, sustenance for the ravening roots;
where God is, has been and will ever be.
I admire the spoken music here: the mind’s flight-path for the crow across lines and stanza; and the transformational release of the raven in ‘ravening’. Good news for his readers that all the poems in the book are as wide-awake and as interesting as this example. The long elegy ‘Madonna and Child’ is the masterwork, eventfully spiritual, almost a dream-work in the way it stirs at memory – memory which is both observed and imagined. In ‘Dream of a Fair Field’ the poet mourned the loss to contemporary poetry of the language of the ‘Song of Solomon’. In ‘Madonna and Child’ he liberates and refreshes this same language for his own invocations and revivifications:
As an orchid among buttercups is she, as a peach tree
among brambles in the wood; as exile
in a hostile land, as drudge among the very poor.
Michael Symmons Roberts wrote in a recent Poetry Review, ‘The relationship between creative freedom and religious belief is far from limiting…religious faith was an imaginative liberation…’. That’s true of John F. Deane when he is creating poems. However, in the same way that the composer John Tavener’s work has been seen as more of a challenge to the world than a consolation, Deane’s poems offer ‘the rising recurrent sorrow of the merely human before loss, its unacceptability, its disdain’ (‘Madonna and Child’). These are beautiful, solemn, gravid poems, best read aloud for, like John Tavener, Deane has to be heard to be believed.
Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.
A Little Book of Hours, John F. Deane, Carcanet Press, pb., 100 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-85754-970-6